What’s the problem?

Fredricksburg bridgeWhen students embark on writing fiction, they can typically handle coming up with characters and settings. The element that causes the greatest problem for the students is the problem  (a.k.a. the conflict). Reading fiction may be a form of escape from reality, but nobody seems particularly interested in reading about perfect characters in a perfect world.

Despite the fact that many teenagers’ lives are filled with the drama of friends, enemies and an endless change in relationships, these personal conflicts are often so spurious that the students do not even really know how to define them. If these everyday events are not related with verbal intonations of alternating intrigue, despair, glee and outrage, they just seem sort of ordinary and boring. But translating everyday conflicts into another world is precisely what good fiction writers typically do.

The conflict that the story centers around typically falls into one of four categories:

The protagonist against the environment. Basically the main character is in danger of dying due to a harsh environment (be it a desert island, or the surface of Mercury, or a flood which will pass in an hour). This kind conflict of can include animals, humans or aliens that intentionally make surviving even trickier. The climax frequently involves the main character returning to the safety of “civilization,” or in a longer story building his or her own society.

The protagonist against the antagonist(s). The main character must fight and win a battle (not always physical) against one or more others. It doesn’t have to be a fight to the death. In fact, the combat can be as ordinary as a board game that one student wrote about from the perspective of the playing pieces.  This is also the basic plot of a love triangle, in which one person wins affection from the desired one, and the other loses out. It is also often the conflict found in a romance. There simply has to be a competition in which one character wins.

The protagonist against society.  Many teenagers feel they live their lives this way. However, in reality it is more of a matter of the younger generation trying to dissociate themselves from the older. The true protagonist against society plot is more like you and me against the world. With such a large crowd fighting the main character, the story usually takes longer. This is typically the kind of plot found in dystopian novels.

The protagonist against himself. The self-embattled protagonist is the story of internal change. The major events are “ah-ha” moments when the main character realizes a truth about himself/herself. Coming of age novels are often based on this plot variation. While writing about enlightenment has the advantage of having the least predictable ending, it takes more skill to create a character that can keep the the reader interested simply by changing.

The longer and more complex the story,  the more these different kinds of conflicts can intertwine, but one of these themes remains the overriding main problem that must be overcome for the story to end.

And what if the problem overcomes the main character? That is a tragedy. Which leads to the next topic –  action and outcomes in the plot.

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